You’re mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and see your well-traveled friend is on safari — roaring lions, adorable baby elephants and all. She comes home with a khaki wardrobe and endless FOMO-inducing stories. Oh, and a brand-new nose. Or a flatter tummy. Or a perkier bum. Welcome to the world of medical tourism, where procedures run the gamut from a face-lift in Costa Rica to hair transplants in Turkey to a so-called cosmetic safari in South Africa.
In fact, my cousin recently returned from Mexico with the most dazzling set of pearly whites. An elementary school teacher, she drove from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Los Algodones (AKA Molar City) for a medical vacation that included lounging by the hotel pool, watching Netflix and spending a few hours in the dentist’s chair. But why go to all the trouble?
We are deep in the Kardashian era of enhancements, and Botox is just the gateway drug. These days, a tummy tuck is considered the new Spanx, and no one bats an eye at blepharoplasty (eyelid rejuvenation). Medical tourism — traveling outside one’s country of residence to receive care — has recently exploded, especially among Americans. Thanks to high demand, cosmetic surgery previously reserved for the ultra wealthy has become de rigueur for all of us.
“Once the domain of the rich and famous, heading to exotic destinations for cosmetic treatment is now accessible to a wider range of patients seeking quality, affordable care,” says Patients Beyond Borders CEO Josef Woodman, who expects that trend to only grow in coming years. “For the past 15 years, market growth has been steady around 25% to 30% annually, and it’s safe to say it will continue to grow at 15% to 25% in the next five years.”
There’s no denying that American healthcare (especially elective) is prohibitively expensive. As those costs in industrialized nations continue to rise, Woodman says globetrotters can expect to save up to 70% as compared to procedures performed in the United States and Canada. So could medical tourism be the answer to our prayers?
My first thought is that I can finally afford Chrissy Teigen’s cheeks (yes, I’m vain). But I’m not alone in that vanity. “This year alone, 1.2 million Americans are expected to cross borders for medical or dental care,” Woodman shares. “Around 15% of those travelers will be seeking cosmetic surgery or noninvasive treatments.”
So what body enhancements are sending so many of us abroad? The tummy tuck leads the pack, followed closely by the mommy makeover (a procedure to rejuvenate the areas most impacted by childbearing), breast augmentation, liposuction and Brazilian butt lifts, explains Center for Medical Tourism Research founder David Vequist. And that smile! Dentistry makes up about 55% of treatments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vequist adds that the global pandemic only fueled this desire, thanks to the Zoom effect and those unwanted COVID pounds.
The trend has become so in demand that it warrants a specialized travel operator. Asthetica founder David Allen says his medical tourism agency has two very distinct clients: those who once found cosmetic surgery to be cost-prohibitive and those who like the idea of heading overseas for treatment and recovery in luxury (and away from nosy neighbors). He adds that clients’ wish lists — from a nose job in Nigeria to an eyebrow transplant in Monte Carlo — are as diverse as they are.
But tell someone you’re jetting off to a foreign country for surgery and the first question you’ll hear is: Is it safe? One of the biggest pitfalls of medical tourism is the murky guidelines, says board-certified plastic surgeon Darren Smith, MD, FACS. “If you are traveling in the United States for plastic surgery, you can look for board certification by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and facility accreditation by three or four governing bodies,” he explains. “But if you’re traveling abroad, it can be very hard to understand what equivalent criteria look like.” As in, none of us want to end up on an episode of Botched: International Disasters.
On top of that, Smith warns that it can be difficult to get proper aftercare if you’re immediately returning from your medical vacation to real life. “If you are traveling for surgery, it’s essential to have a solid post-operative care plan in place,” he affirms. “Reputable practices regularly serving out-of-town patients should be able to help with this.”
In short, if you’re headed to a carefully vetted destination for an advanced procedure that is not locally available, that can be fine with proper planning. But if you’re trekking to a lesser known locale for a bargain, that’s a bit more fraught. The bottom line? This isn’t a trip to the hair salon, and Yelp reviews won’t cut it. You need to do your research like your life (and lipo) depends on it.
As for me, I’m coining a new term: cosmetic wanderlust. I have been to nearly 60 countries, and not once have I thought about combining a trip with a medical procedure. That is until now, when I’m currently obsessing over a brand-new butt from South Korea and a little dental work courtesy of Molar City, Mexico. Turns out we can have our passports stamped with a side of new pearly whites. Viva la veneers!